Fort Valley residents fight for historic Coke plant

chwright@macon.comAugust 26, 2012 

Bottled up love of Fort Valley’s history has exploded into a classic battle between a developer and the community.

City Council will meet Monday to decide whether to stick with the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to deny the demolition of a former Coca-Cola bottling plant. Business owner Danny Strickland wants to build a Wendy’s in its place.

Strickland, a Kathleen resident who owns a Wendy’s in Cochran, said he was two months into plans for a new location when he found out the unkept, vacant building he intended to demolish was considered historic.

“If I had known it was in a historic district, I would never have made an offer,” Strickland said.

That’s no matter to more than 300 residents who signed a petition against the demolition. Jo Ann Dankel, a Fort Valley resident of 30 years who has led the effort, said the old building means more to the community than a new business.

“We have a lot of empty buildings in Fort Valley, but no one’s trying to tear them down just because it’s empty,” she said. “This building is a historic building.”

Historic protection

The city passed an ordinance in 1993 that formed the Historic Preservation Commission, tasked with overseeing the preservation of buildings within Fort Valley’s established historic districts.

The Coca-Cola building at 309 N. Camellia Blvd. is in the middle of the Fort Valley Downtown and Railroad National Register Historic District, established in 2011.

It’s mentioned four times in the application for the district designation and listed as No. 5 of 59 local spots in “The Historic Architecture of Fort Valley: A Walking Driving Guide,” a pamphlet listed on the Historic Middle Georgia website.

The preservation ordinance says the commission must review all potential demolitions within the historic districts and decide whether to issue a certificate of appropriateness.

The commission denied Strickland’s application for the certificate of appropriateness Wednesday in a detailed five-page report filled with the building’s history.

“Historic places help to define a community, make a city unique and remind future generations of their community’s past,” the report states. “The building that is under threat with this proposal may not be picture-postcard quality, but it tells an important story about the city’s past.”

A property record card the commission found states the plant was built in 1940. However, its architecture, community recollection and the history of its architects indicate the building was built in the 1920s or 1930s, according to the commission report.

According to the report, the nearly 5,800-square-foot building has two levels and a warehouse behind it, though the latter is not considered historic.

Architects Robert Pringle and Francis Smith, of Atlanta architecture firm Pringle & Smith, designed the building in the same fashion as bottling plants they also planned in Elberton, Swainsboro and Thomson, the report states.

“It features a hipped tile roof with brackets under the wide eaves; corner brick quoins; running brick bond; and decorative terra-cotta Coca-Cola panel on the building’s front (east) facade,” the report states.

From outside, the embossed panel with the classic Coca-Cola lettering is the most noticeable part of the building.

The report states the historic structure is a catalyst for reflective conversations around town.

“Folks remember the days when they would stand outside the front window and watch the bottling process; often invited by the employees to come inside to watch the bottling process, and share a free Coca-Cola,” the report states. “It was a favorite stopping place for a Saturday stroll.”

Billie Logue, one of three members of the Historic Preservation Commission, said he and his friends loved the building so much they tried to buy it last year. But owner Tilley Properties wouldn’t negotiate the $250,000 asking price, and the deal fell through.

“I wanted to turn it into a museum, a Coke history museum,” said Logue, a Coca-Cola memorabilia collector. “We were going to fill the building with what we had and bring in more. In back (the warehouse), we would restore old cars.”

Logue and commission member Connie Rainey declined to talk about the report. Commission member Jeffrey Jennings did not return messages for comment.

The commission, as well as Dankel, suggested Strickland could build a one-of-a-kind Wendy’s, one built inside of the old Coca-Cola bottling company.

“There are other fast food restaurants in Georgia and all over the United States, and especially Europe, that are built right inside of historic buildings,” Dankel said. “Not only would it save the facade of the Coke building, but it would be a really special Wendy’s or whatever business.”

Such a unique business could afford some tax breaks for Strickland, attract tourists to Fort Valley and be a focal point of downtown Fort Valley, the report argued.

Developer questions historic value

Strickland, however, said he already has spent three months and $25,000 on the current plans. Changing strategy now would cost more time and money he hadn’t bargained for.

“Once you get over a certain amount of money, it becomes not worth it,” Strickland said.

At this point though, Strickland said he’s invested too much money and time to back away without completing the last step in the historic process. He appealed to City Council the same day he received the commission’s report.

City Council called a meeting for 11 a.m. Monday at City Hall. The agenda includes Strickland’s appeal and three other items.

Mayor John Stumbo and council will decide whether to uphold the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision, modify it or strike it down.

“I would prefer not to comment” on the commission’s report, Stumbo said Friday, adding that’s his standard policy. “If the council has to stand in judgment of something, I don’t comment.”

Strickland said he made an offer on the Coke building in May and said he had no idea the building was designated as historic. It wasn’t mentioned in the listing or found in documentation he reviewed.

Strickland said he’s a history buff and appreciates the value of preservation.

However, he said, the Coke building may not be what it once was.

It’s been on the market since the early 1980s. Weeds encase the cement parking lot and building. On his one walk-through, Strickland noted no bottling equipment remains, and the floorboards were rotted.

“I understand the importance of history, and I don’t want to mess with that,” Strickland said. “But my question is: As the building sits right now, what is that doing to preserve the history of Fort Valley?”

Strickland compared the community’s affinity for the building to his aging process. He was once a young lad, able to run, jump and skip at will, he explained.

“In my mind, I would like to think I’m still that person I used to be. But I’m not,” the 52-year-old said. “Maybe in their minds, they see it like it was back then. But it isn’t.”

The business owner intends to pay homage to the city’s history through dining room photos of Fort Valley’s culture, including the city’s once-largest ice machine in the world, Fort Valley College (now Fort Valley State University), Lane Packing Co. and Blue Bird Corp. It’s the same concept as his Cochran location, he said.

“I’m not a bad guy,” Strickland said. “I’m not trying to do a bad thing.”

History versus development

Dankel and the Historic Preservation Commission said if City Council contradicts its preservation ordinance, bad things could happen to the rest of the city’s historic buildings because they’d be vulnerable.

“For a city like Fort Valley, whose rich and storied cultural heritage is reflected in its historic buildings, that is unacceptable,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, Stumbo said he’s stuck between a brick and a building. The community has begged for more commercial development to produce jobs and revenue, yet the community is against a business at the heart of the city, he explained.

“People want me to do what I can to get economic development downtown. They want less taxes,” Stumbo said.

City Council understands the city needs to preserve its history but not necessarily by saving every building, Stumbo said.

Residents have argued the intersection, which already has a McDonald’s and Burger King, doesn’t need another fast food restaurant. To that, Stumbo said he and council cannot discriminate against the type of business.

“It’s not my job to decide what should and shouldn’t come,” Stumbo said. “It’s not up to government to manipulate this.”

Dankel agreed Fort Valley needs a boost in development but didn’t think Strickland’s idea is it.

“We’re very poor in Fort Valley. We want and need jobs here,” Dankel said. “But we also want our important buildings to be preserved for now and for the future.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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